Heavy metal with a big heart

They’re an eclectic lot the UAE’s budding rock musicians, drawn from a range of nationalities and backgrounds. They might get little in the way of financial reward – and sometimes nothing at all – but their enthusiasm is boundless.

Mannan Alawar, Emirati heavy metal guitarist, in his home studio. Reem Mohammed / The National
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“I don’t discriminate with music,” laughs Mannan Alawar, “as long as it’s good.”

Whether he is reinventing the UAE national anthem on electric guitar for a YouTube audience or leaping into a crowd mid-solo, Alawar is hardly the average Emirati banker.

The 24-year-old is a musician at heart, dividing his time between his day job, several bands and finishing a business degree.

When he is not recording vocals for his band Osprey’s latest track, he’s preparing to perform internationally with another, or fine-tuning the recording studio he is building at his house in Dubai.

“This studio is finally finished,” he says. “I started it earlier this year and I’m still waiting for the rest of the furniture and the gear. I’m going to call it ‘Rec’,” he says, pointing to a series of three symbols mounted on the wall: play, pause and record.

“I’m either going to get help from people who could focus more on the recording side and I’ll just join in whenever I can, or I will postpone until I’m 100 per cent ready to do it.

“I would love to pour my heart and soul into it,” he says. “I like to give 100 per cent to everything I do, so I would hate to have a band come and record here and go: ‘Ah you know what? Could’ve been better’.”

Even at university, he took two degrees at once, studying audio production in the morning and business in the evening.

His musical interest was first piqued by his brother’s collection of Michael Jackson cassettes. “Then I listened to what my family was listening to, and it was Mehad Hamad and all this Arabic-type music, and I was like,” he pulls a mock grimace and laughs, “the quality is too different – you know?”

Eventually, Jackson's rockier songs such as Black or White led Alawar to guitarists like Slash and Eddie Van Halen. "There was also a hip-hop phase," he says.

When he first started rocking, and the heavy riffs boomed throughout the house, Alawar’s family thought it was “just a phase”.

“I was lucky to have my family, because they’re loving, caring and supportive. But yeah, it is unusual.”

When he practised, he says: “My brother would be listening to it next to me – and then, once I was done, I’d be thinking, ‘Oh, that’s great’, and he’d go like ‘Tsk, what’s this?’”

However, some people, he conceded, “find it too weird. They think you’re just being dragged by western culture.”

When he uploaded a video of himself on to YouTube, performing the UAE’s national anthem on electric guitar on top of a sand dune, he inadvertently earned the wrath of more conservative viewers.

“I have always loved my country – that’s why I did it; to celebrate National Day.”

However, he pays no attention to the critics, and is quick to dispel any attempts to compartmentalise heavy metal musicians. “Just because I play this type of music, it doesn’t mean I don’t pray,” he says.

“This is just what I enjoy. My dad likes to play cards; I play the guitar – whatever it is you’re passionate about.”

The music he records with Osprey, founded in 2007, is a combination of melodic metal and rock.

“It’s all about being positive. That’s what I always try to focus on.”

Alawar used to play in Naser Mestarihi’s band. Mestarihi, a 27-year-old Jordanian-Pakistani, grew up in Qatar. He spent most of his teenage years in Dubai, where his love of performing and writing began.

“When I got into the music scene and started playing live in Dubai, I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m going to be a Dubai-based musician”.

When he moved back to Doha three years ago, his goal was to “rejuvenate the scene” and encourage people to form bands and perform, although this “never really worked out”.

Even though he was willing to pay to fly his Qatar-based bands over to Dubai for gigs, “no one was motivated”, he says.

“I don’t think musicians here have the same aspirations as musicians do in Dubai – most of the musicians that I play with in Dubai do it full-time, whereas here they don’t see it as a wise, or a lucrative, career choice.”

People “really go for it” in Dubai, despite a lack of financial incentives. In Doha, most talented musicians tend to form cover bands, he says.

“I respect that because they do what they love. But it doesn’t hold weight to me when you compare it, at least to writing your own music,” he says.

It should come as no surprise that the latest incarnation of his band is based in Dubai. His return to live performance, at the Music Room last month, was well received – with the audience chanting along.

“A lot of people were coming up to me and talking to me after the show, and saying: ‘We really hope that this is the permanent line-up of your band, because this is the line-up that’s happening.’”

While Mestarihi has been making a comeback of sorts, Alawar has joined the progressive metal band Coat of Arms, veterans of the Dubai underground music scene.

“When Coat of Arms told me that I had a chance to play with them, “ he snaps his fingers, “I immediately dropped everything. I got my seven-string and got straight into it.”

Aside from a few UAE gigs this year, including an album launch at Dubai’s Music Room, the band has been playing at a three-day festival in Portugal since Saturday, and will perform in Sri Lanka on August 13. There is also a UK tour in the works.

Mohammad Bailouni, the band’s lyricist and vocalist, started playing in bands when he was a teenager. Although his father is Syrian and his mother British, he was raised in Abu Dhabi. He and Alawar went to the same school, albeit four years apart.

“From my generation, in terms of the people from my year, we were essentially the first band, to some extent,” he says, speaking of an earlier band he was in. “We were the first people that put together shows and planned events and stuff like that, because at that time Abu Dhabi wasn’t a very well-known city. Not many people were open to it. You couldn’t access music as easily – it was just MTV and Channel V.”

The band gigged at venues such as the small Al Mariah Mall, where they rented empty shops and charged admission fees. Teenagers headbanged and moshed, girls wearing skirts stitched with the band’s logo.

Just before he went to university, Bailouni started Coat of Arms – a local supergroup formed by members of the leading underground bands. While he was away, Alawar started Osprey, which he says helped to tune the younger generation into the art of putting on shows.

“Then, obviously the whole place changed; the city grew up,” he says. “I remember, when the first Dubai Desert Rock Festival took place, The Rasmus were coming. The Rasmus weren’t even a big band, but people went ballistic.”

While Dubai and Abu Dhabi regularly host megastars, from the Rolling Stones to Drake, Alawar laments that the underground scene has been left behind.

“If you get to this age and you’re still playing music in some capacity, if you’re running your own website and you’re selling merchandise, you’re running it like a part-time business.”

It is disheartening, he says, to not be paid for gigs, even just to cover food and fuel costs.

“We have shows where we bring 400 or 500 people, and if they’re charging Dh50 or Dh100 a ticket, that’s a lot of money. So it’s like, ‘You couldn’t pay me, like, five people’s admissions?’

“When it first started off, we couldn’t pay people because we were paying for it ourselves – we were not making money back. People now are making money back, but bands are still not getting paid.”

Although his first few bands were more alternative rock than metal, Coat of Arms, which boasts more than 20,000 Facebook followers, is particularly heavy. It is hard to imagine the soft-spoken Bailouni when listening to the band's latest album A Shade of Red, on which there is only one song where he does not growl.

“Being the vocalist and lyricist, I have a strict rule of not trying to sing about killing people and hating and blood, and all that stuff. I think that’s really stupid.”

He focuses instead on sociological concepts and issues observed in the UAE, from technology addiction to workers’ rights. The album’s title alludes to the various interpretations of the colour red, from love to hate, depending on the shade.

“Because it’s more aggressive and louder, you make more of a statement about what you’re saying,” he says.

Although he studied a double master’s in biotech at Newcastle University, UK, he has spent an equal amount of time writing, mixing and mastering music.

“I’m book-smart when it comes to science,” he says, “but I’m street-smart when it comes to music and audio.”

Like Alawar, Bailouni is putting his money where is mouth is, and has co-founded a pair of production studios for audio and video. He was inspired after being approached to write a song for Avril Lavigne, but could not, as his company in Qatar would not let him leave the country. “That really upset me.”

It took him three years of working full-time to save up for the endeavour. “I feel like the talent in the UAE is completely untapped. There’s so many different nationalities and mixes of people here, which is the perfect ingredient to making new music and new art. They just haven’t got a foundation to work off.”